In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century , Thomas L. Friedman tells us that the world recently entered a new era of globalization presenting unique opportunities and challenges akin to Columbus' discovery that the world was round.
Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and syndicated New York Times columnist, states that the first globalization era ran from the outset of Columbus' first voyage in 1492 – which opened trade with the New World – to around 1800. The second era, from 1800 to 2000, was driven by the expansion of multinational companies and the falling costs of transportation. The newest era of globalization, according to Friedman, resulted from the confluence of advances in broad-band communications and in computer hardware and software. It allows individuals to collaborate and compete globally.
Unlike Columbus' ocean voyages, Friedman made his discovery in a meeting with Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys Technologies Limited near Bangalore, India. There, at the end of a bumpy, dirt road, Friedman and his TV crew "in two banged-up vans, with Indian drivers who drove barefoot" entered the gates of Infosys to see a modern world: a massive swimming pool, putting green, restaurants, a health club -- all amid modern buildings.
Nilekani showed the TV crew Infosys' global conferencing center.
From there Infosys can hold virtual meetings of its global supply chain: American designers, Indian software writers and Asian manufacturers. A half-dozen or more world-wide locations can be linked, live, 24/7.
Intellectual work can now be "disaggregated, delivered, distributed, produced, and put back together again," Nilekani explained. "The playing field has been leveled."
Friedman realized that what Nilekani was saying was that "the global competitive playing field was being leveled. The world was being flattened." With the aide of modern communications, many companies could take advantage of the most economical intellectual work and labor wherever it was located and still coordinate the production of the final product.
This change represents an opportunity for the industrialized world, because competition tends to improve products, and because goods can be more abundant or their costs lowered. But the change can also threaten more developed countries if their workforce and producers don't adapt, or if newly empowered terrorists use technology maliciously.